My mother kept meticulous files full of articles and brochures about the places she wanted to travel to, although there was no indication she would ever get to any of them. My father was deeply uncomfortable leaving home and wanted to venture no further than the garden out back or the workbench in the garage, and she lacked the daring to strike out on her own. As a teenager, I looked on my mother’s files with disdain and, later, with pity. How sad, I thought, to just move papers about and never really do the things you want to do. How tragic, to lock up a life in a box.
Many years later, I came to see that I too had much of my life in a box. I had—and still have—file cabinets and straw baskets and big black binders and cardboard boxes and computer files and even their backups. These files are filled with my writing. Writing about falling in love and having my heart broken; about adventures in sex and sexuality; about getting married and heading to divorce; about becoming a mother and holding my children in my arms for the first time and, later, worrying about the complex and unstable world they will inherit; about caring for my beloved mother when dementia struck, witnessing the awful progression, being with her when she took her last breath, not knowing how to go on, and finding a way to go on; about my struggles with confidence and other secrets and lies; about my spiritual questing, my deep love of life, and my fear of dying before I wholly and fully live; about friendship and the beauty of yellow tulips in a vase; about the miracle of having just the right people appear in my life at just the right time, and longing, longing, longing—to break free.
The walls we construct (what Doris Lessing called The Prisons We Choose to Live Inside) may crumble of their own accord but usually, I think, something else happens. We stay stuck. A little light shines in. Or, one day, we find the courage to scale the walls, peek over and take the plunge. That is what I think we secretly most want to do. And it is what I am doing now—since I began a project several months ago to review all my unpublished writing, identify what may be worth sharing, turn them into publication-ready pieces, and send them out.
This work stops my heart and fills it at the same time. I mean to say it terrifies me. But feeling this terror is better than feeling the deadening of my spirit that comes from keeping it all locked up. Because this, in the end, is what I have to give: Words about life, my life, and the common threads that unite all our lives—the experience of longings and disappointments, successes and failures, love and loss. And in an age when it seems as if we are all expected to sell our work and ourselves, with a bright shiny ribbon on it and a promise of here is how you too can find success, happiness, and love—it takes a bit of courage, I think, to offer one’s bare truth. But then again, it is the simple truths—offered by writers, often in books of limited commercial appeal but timeless value—that have meant the most to me. It is what we writers do: conjure the words that help people understand, maybe just a little more, our shared and uncontainable experience of life. But it only works when the words expressed in private are let out into the world and given a life of their own.